A vicious pack of banshees. This is what a northeast wind at gale force sounds like.
Occasionally, Malta certainly gets hurtled and hurt by this terrible force of nature. Monday night was such a night and to say that I was disturbed is an understatement. More so since I’ve got a hairline crack in my rubber sealing to my bedroom’s balcony door that undoes the whole point of having double glazing. It’s all my fault for I’ve been wanting to have it repaired for more than a couple of years. But it’s one of those items on my ‘to do’ list which has been relegated to the bottom of priorities and I know full well that only reaching critical point will get me having it repaired.
The consequence? A night of tossing and turning axing any hope of replenishing, tranquil sleep.
Worse still, the howling wind and whipping rain perfectly reflected my current inner turbulence. In literature, the stylistic device of projecting something external like the weather, landscape, seascape, or even the mood of a room mirror feelings is known as pathetic fallacy. Although the use pathetic fallacy can be cliched, at its most extreme it revs up into sublimation, meaning a storm in the heavens perfectly embodies and distills a raving, ranting heart.
With this in mind, a few days down the line I deliberately fished out one of my favourite Ted Hughes poems, aptly called ‘Wind’ which goes like this:
This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet
Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.
At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guy rope,
The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
~Ted Hughes (1930-1998)
That Hughes was inspired to write about wind is not breaking news. As a Yorkshire man, he was born and bred in a wind blasted county – the very same ‘wuthering heights’ that infused the novels of the Brontë sisters. His poetry is therefore rooted in the violence of nature which he breathed and which moulded him into a later day Romantic utterly awed by the mixture of beauty and savagery in the animal world. In fact, animals serve as a metaphor for his own view of life which he saw as an ongoing struggle because he believed in the concept of the survival of the fittest and a no-nonsense attitude. Consequently, it is no surprise to see a fiery overtone and a raw energy as two of his most characteristic traits.
The West Riding dialect of his childhood inspired the concrete, terse yet extremely powerful and effective diction which stamps his work. His later poems deeply absorbed the influence of myths through which he kept on exploring the deeper recesses of the human mind, particularly the dark sub-conscious or deep recess of our psyche.
‘Wind’ depicts a menacing gale that rages all night and day spews its ferocity on a house which stands in the middle of nowhere. The poet makes use of very vivid imagery and other poetic devices to describe the intensity and power of the storm leaving us in no doubt of the overwhelming violence in nature.
The opening line “This house has been far out at sea all night” dramatically projects an image of an utterly isolated and vulnerable house. The simple yet striking metaphor of being “far out at sea” makes us picture the house like a flimsy boat being tossed, pounded and smashed in a stormy sea. The following metaphor, “winds stampeding the fields” describes the wild, unstoppable energy of the thunderous wind. ‘This is rendered doubly effective with the use animal connotations and of onomatopoeia in “The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills” as well as the alliteration of the insidious /s/ and harsh /ing/ and echoing /b/ sounds throughout the first stanza. Therefore, from the start Hughes emphasizes how both the house and the surrounding landscape are totally at the mercy of nature.
By pointing to the window, the persona also makes us visualize the link between the inside and outside of the house.
The sensations of danger, violence and vulnerability are also evoked through the window personified into a “floundering” and weeping creature; foreshadowing the window at the very end which appears to “tremble to come in”. Anyone familiar with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, will note an echo of the novel’s opening pages. By pointing to the window, the persona also makes us visualize the link between the inside and outside of the house. Significantly, the run-on line between the first two stanzas shows that the storm continues well into the day, so that daybreak (“Till day rose”) brings no hope of calm. The same can be said for all the run-on lines throughout the poem.
In fact, the morning sky is “orange” signifying violence. The surreal imagery conveys the scale of destruction and devastation – “The hills had new places”. The cutting continuous to create havoc: “the wind wielded/Blade-light, luminous black and emerald.” The alliteration of ‘s’ and ‘d’ in the second stanza keep up the impact of harsh aural imagery. Yet, although we are made to see the lashing wind “flexing like the lens of mad eye”, the colour imagery also imparts a sensation of beauty mixed with terror. This is a typical Romantic image which Hughes is famous for.
By noon, the persona plucks up enough courage to go outside and survey the scene. He gets as far as the “coal-house”; but this is enough to feel “the brunt of the wind that dented the balls of [his] eyes”. More drama is created when he looks up and sees the devastated hill tops which he describes metaphorically as a tent which “drummed and strained its guy rope”.
Another run-on line links the third and fourth stanza once again portraying the ongoing windstorm. Hughes now personifies the skyline – “a grimace” looking over the “quivering fields”. The bird imagery which follows is important to note because the magpie symbolizes unpredictability to tie in with the unpredictability of nature while the black gull injects an ominous note through its black colour. The fact that the wind bends these two utterly free creatures “like an iron bar slowly” proves the might of the wind.
The last two stanzas focus once more on the house battered by the gale storm. More onomatopoeia occurs in the simile:
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it.
The persona, who we realize is not alone in the house, finds no comfort by gazing into the fire. On the contrary, the people who live here are too much on edge to read a book or share their thoughts. Terror grips their heart as they “feel the roots of the house move” and hear “the stones cry out under the horizons”. The house can be destroyed at any moment. The atmosphere of danger is now also one of helplessness and defeat and despair. Human beings are utterly insignificant when compared to the brutal power in nature.
The poem’s vivid visual and aural imagery is underlined by an equally effective turbulent and frenzied/agitated tone. The wind is even superior to the fire. The use of blank verse adds to the dramatic impact of the gale storm.
At a deeper level the windstorm sublimates the conflict, upheaval and turmoil in the poet’s life. Once again, an autobiographical slant is investable since Hughes’ love life was both eventful and harrowing. He married fellow poet, the American Sylvia Plath in 1956. Their happiness was short lived and the troubled marriage (aggravated by her bouts of depression and his infidelity) came to a tragic end when she committed suicide in 1963 when she was only 30 years old. Six years later, Assia Wevil who he had fallen for and supplanted Plath, killed herself and their four-year old daughter in the same horrifying way.
For a long time afterwards, Hughes was hounded by feminists who regarded him as the culprit of Plath’s early death. Although he seems to have found happiness again in his second marriage to Carol Orchard in 1970, the tragedy of his personal life hung heavily over him and the press coverage he got in this regard tended to overshadow his literary achievements which included children’s writing and translations of European plays. His last poetic work is an anthology entitled Birthday Letters which was published close to his death. These poems delved into the complex relationship with Plath and come across as an attempt to set the record straight before dying.
I believe that this complexity lies at the core of this poem. The couple alluded to towards the end of the poem are unable to comfort each other because what once bonded them is no more. As they confront their terror of nature at it most destructive, they are confronting the death of their togetherness. And what can be worse that feeling alone when you are meant to be an item? Their emotional storm is in fact still unfurling although they feel isolated and bashed just like the house in the windstorm.
A relationship undone by infidelity certainly strikes home in Hughes’ case. Yet as devastating as it is, what leads to unfaithfulness is part of the immense complexity that sparks, sustains and sears relationships. I believe that the love between a man and a woman is not a matter of two halves completing a circle or of some sort of reconciliation, but a matter of complementary circles pirouetting on the concentric ones of togetherness.
The breaking of this togetherness unleashes a storm like no other.